The Neo-Reader’s Response (or, The Book I’m Waiting to Read)

The Wall Street Journal tells me what I should think about politics and what stocks I should (and should not) buy. Time magazine tells me what to think about the Iraqi conflict and TV Guide tells me what to watch. People Magazine tells me what to wear and how to look, while Credenda Agenda tells me what’s wrong with the world. All of these works are trying to change me, alter my thought process, my desires, my hopes, what I think about after the children fall asleep and I lay in bed, awake in my dis-ease.

As a(n aspiring) writer, I would never subscribe to the reduction of a text to what my response is: how it makes me feel, what I want to do when reading it. But then again, I’m waiting for someone to legitimize that how a text evokes my responsiveness is at least a certain reality: not the ontological expression of word and meaning, but the ontological realities of being changed by a word, transformed, enlightened, inspired, converted. Language is futile if it ends at the point of being spoken or written. Instruction is impotent even when there is no response. Imperative must compel, whether by fear or whether by grace.

Most writing takes for granted the assumption that we will have a response. Sure, there are hermeneutical principles, a cooperative endeavor that a reader must embrace: a willingness to heed, to listen, and to consider. But eventually, he must also respond: to agree, to argue, to dismiss, to muse, to reject, to embrace, to love, to live…differently.

Objectivity is non-existent; at the least, post-modernity has helped us shed that skin of the enlightened version of it. But consider the Gospel: there is the ontological reality of the incarnation, the God-Man who, scripture says, was born, lived perfectly, suffered fully, died, and was raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God. And then there are the internal implications that this ontological reality has: a life dead to sin, alive with purpose, empowered by a new indwelling nature received by faith. Archibald Alexander speaks of the seal and the wax:

"There are two kinds of religious knowledge which, though they are as intimately connected as cause and effect, may nevertheless be distinguished from one another. These are, firstly, the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and, secondly, the impression which that truth makes on the human mind when rightly apprehended. We may compare the first to the inscription or image on a seal and, similarly, compare the other to the impression made by the seal on the wax. When that impression is clearly and distinctly made, we can understand, through our contemplation of it, the true inscription on the seal more satisfactorily than if we tried to discern the inscription directly on the seal itself."

Or, as Rev. Steve Smallman says, “There is a distinction between the Gospel and the Gospel in you: yes, the Gospel is what happened ontologically 2000 years ago, but the Gospel in us is what happens in our lives as we are united to Christ.”

So…I guess I’m waiting. I’m waiting for a book that invites me to bring my muddled emotions to the lines of the page and explore the path set out before me, with the intention that I arrive somewhere in the end—but arrive having been changed by the process itself: that I know myself better. Can it be rightly called a dialogue on self-reflection? Can it be rightly called the legitimacy of the reader’s reaction? Is it really a neo-reader response criticism? I don’t know. I am just stricken daily by how little we know ourselves, and how impacting such ignorance is played out in our knowledge of God, as in the words of Calvin, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Maybe what I’m looking for is fiction and personal testimony (a.k.a non-fiction) that echoes the Bible by inviting the blessedness and brokenness of creation into the same room to dance: as grace and glory displace grief—and not just ontological grief—but my grief, your grief, and our commonly shared grief. Maybe I’m waiting to read someone write a critical approach that says, “The writer and the reader are opposite termini upon the same line. The one reflects and writes, while the other reads and reacts. At each extreme, one can tell where the onus rests. However, there is no distinct line of demarcation at which point one might declare that beyond such-and-so a point the onus is on the reader and before such-and-so a point it rests upon the writer. It is not a monologue to which the reader merely listens, but ultimately a conversation into which he, with his emotions, thoughts, and experiences, brings a voice that sings either in harmony or dissidence with the words of the writer and so all writing is expression, interpretation, and reaction.”

So, as the two most recent books read have been poor selections, and as I absolutely refuse to begin with a negative post, let me submit to you—the reader—this consideration of a text that I’ve yet to read, but which I think is the validating compromise that the emotional romanticism, the pessimistic realist, and the optimistic rationalists hope to find.

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